When a Writer Becomes a Target

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

Once you’re a published author, you’re going to have a target on your back. You will offer up your words to strangers, and not everyone will like what you write. You’ll be naked and vulnerable in front of the world. You’ll make mistakes, you may offend people. And you may not feel safe.

They will write things publicly about you, on their blogs, on your blog, on book review sites, or on Amazon. One of my friends recently received this review online: “I couldn’t even finish this book… Confusing and in my humble opinion, pointless.” Ouch.

target-on-your-backEveryone has a right to their opinion. In fact, diversity of opinions is something that makes book publishing so dynamic and interesting. But sometimes those opinions hit us like flaming arrows.

I’ve had this happen numerous times in my nine years of blogging. I’ll write something that sparks disagreement, or something that gets peoples’ hackles up. I may be intending to float an idea and solicit input, spur thinking, or spark conversation. Whether I succeed or fail is completely up to the reader.

And that’s the point. Your intent doesn’t matter to readers. What matters is what they perceive as your intent, and whether they like what you’ve written, period. If they don’t, their response can be brutal.

Anyone in the “public eye” – and if you have any online presence, that means you – is a target for criticism. People can and will say anything they want. They will misinterpret what you’ve written, they will assign motives, and they’ll make judgments about you as a human being.

So what can we do about this? Here are three things.

(1) Don’t engage with those who criticize you.
There are few good exceptions to this guideline. I’ve rarely seen an author’s public response to criticism turn out well. Your attempts to engage in a conversation with your detractors won’t likely do any more than add fuel to the fire. Let people say what they will. Most people do not want to re-consider their opinions anyway, so your attempts to change their mind will do no good.

(2) Listen and learn.
Sometimes there’s helpful criticism wrapped in a harshly worded comment or critique. It’s possible that your interpretation of someone’s apparently hurtful intent may be wrong, too. If the comment is simply mean-spirited or self-serving, let it bounce off, but don’t be so Teflon-coated that even helpful advice can’t get through.

(3) Be careful with your own words.
As you offer your criticism to other writers, bloggers, agents or anyone else in cyberspace, think before you hit “send.” Treat others as you’d like to be treated. Offer grace. Offer constructive criticism intended to build up rather than harsh judgment intended to tear down.

Remember there is a real live person behind the written words. If you have a particularly scathing piece of feedback, send it in private (via email?) rather than airing it in public. You may discover you’re reading the person’s motives all wrong and she might (gasp) thank you for pointing out how they could have been misread. You could even find a new friend.

Regardless of who you are, or how kindhearted your intent, if you’re a writer in pursuit of publication, eventually you’re going to be judged.

Carry a shield. And treat other authors as if they don’t.


How do you respond to online criticism, disagreement, or negative reviews? If you haven’t yet experienced it, what do you think your response would be?



Once you’re a published author, you’re going to have a target on your back. Click to Tweet.

“Carry a shield, and treat others as if they don’t.” Click to Tweet.

“You’ll make mistakes, you may offend people. And you may not feel safe.” Click to Tweet.

Ever had criticism hit you like a flaming arrow? Tips on handling it from @RachelleGardner. Click to Tweet.

54 Responses

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  1. I used to have a sign in my office: If it CAN be misunderstood, it WILL be misunderstood.

    I write thinking the words to myself in some conversational tone. Unfortunately, the tone doesn’t attach to the words, and others hear something entirely different. I try to be quick and generous with a sincere apology, “I’m sorry. I didn’t state that well.”

    Of course, there are times when people just don’t like my message. Folks didn’t like Jeremiah’s message, and they threw him in a cistern. If I’m going to be a target, I want the cause to be worthy.

  2. Kathy Cassel says:

    What I hate is when I get criticized in a review for something not relating to my writing. One lady bought my book The Christian Girls Guide to Being Your Best from christianbooks. She thought it was a Bible study. It’s not. Just read the description. But she gave it one star because it wasn’t a Bible study.

    For my book One Year Book of Bible Trivia for Kids two people criticized it for not giving the version on the Bible (it’s on the copyright page if you actually look) and several criticized it because the devos are dated. They felt they couldn’t start the book unless it was January 1. But each devo stands alone. They can start anywhere. If I referred to a previous devo, I gave the date. But I think I only did that twice in 365 devos, and I also summarized.
    They weren’t mean about those two things, and I didn’t lose sleep over it, but they are things I don’t control.

    All to say, if someone doesn’t like my writing or content, fine. Say so. But don’t give my book a bad rating because it isn’t what you thought it would be or over something trivial.

  3. Hannah says:

    So many writer, myself included, are thin-skinned. It’s the other side of the sensitive, perceiving, intuitive coin. But your tips for how to deal with criticism are helpful. I think the most important one might be, Don’t respond in a public way to an attack. Because, really, when does that ever, ever help?

  4. I mentioned last week that I saw a wonderful book get a low review for being “Christian.” I saw it again yesterday on another writer’s book … someone gave a low rating and wrote, “The author should have stated on the book that this was about God.”

    It got me to thinking … it would be nice to place on a book’s cover, “Make no mistake, this is a God thing.”

    But you know, hopefully that reader stumbled upon and read exactly what God needed her to read … making the low rating worth every lacking star.

  5. Kathleen says:

    When I come across comments from reviews like have been stated above, it jolts me until I remember where my source of approval is, and then it’s an intention to drag my thoughts off the negative, learn what I can, and move on. This can often be after I have rolled my eyes and shouted at the computer screen.

  6. John Wells says:

    Comes with the territory. In the words of the Bard, t’is nobler in the mind to take arms against a Sea of troubles and by opposing, end them rather than suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Stand behind your words and do not flinch. In your writing, be Sheriff Andy rather than Barney Fife.

  7. Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    Oooooh, I do not look forward to this. Ick. But publication has been my goal for 14 years and I’m not going to let the fear of feedback stop me. It is just sobering…although, I know I can count on my mother and her Bible study ladies to give me a nice review. Moms are great that way! I’ll have to take your advice, Rachelle, keep my mouth shut and then just read my mother’s glowing and biased reviews whenever this comes up.

  8. Sheila King says:

    Good reminders, Rachel- especially to not engage with those critics. I think of the writer who stalked her Amazon critic to the point of going to her house to confront her (granted the critic was a fraud, but still).
    Also, your advice about people mistaking our meaning, the story of the tweeter who (in her own defense said she was making a social commentary about inequality) was labeled a racist and became vilified internationally. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/how-one-stupid-tweet-ruined-justine-saccos-life.html?_r=0

    Both stories are complete nightmares!

  9. One thing I learned when I worked in academia was that a large percentage of those who give negative reviews or harsh criticism do so to further their own agenda…either in terms of promoting their own research platform, or just generally getting noticed.

    A lot of Amazon reviews come across the same way; negative reviews seems, sometimes, to be all a-flutter with the hyperactivity of the third-grader who’s positively SQUIRMING to point out that teacher made a spelling mistake on the blackboard.

    There is thoughtful criticism…the “This could have been a better story if…” kind. That’s welcome. (And pointing out a factual error is vital, and VERY welcome!)

    But the example you cited, Rachelle…“I couldn’t even finish this book… Confusing and in my humble opinion, pointless.”…it says more about the “reviewer” having a need for five seconds of the spotlight.

    And when anyone says “in my humble opinion” I turn out the lights. Ain’t no such thing.

    • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

      Ha ha, last year my oldest boy’s teacher made the mistake of revealing her score on one of those national math tests that everyone has to take every year. My little guy’s score was higher than hers and so he was always telling her “No, your answer is wrong, mine is right” and sometimes he was right, but a lot of the time she was. She was such an awesome teacher though and laughed at him and just made him check his work again. She was secure in her place as the teacher and didn’t let his arrogance grow until it took over his head. Love it!

      • That made me smile!

        When I was teaching I used reverse psychology – I essentially got through a doctorate on the basis of being able to do a prodigious amount of highly destructive lab work (well, I wrote a kick-ass computer program to analyze the mayhem, too), so I was seen as the knuckledragger I truly am.

        Added to that was the fact that my grades were so low, as a grad student, that UC San Diego actually changed the rules to make sure no one like me could EVER get through to a doctorate again (holding a metaphorical perfumed hankie to their nose, with an expression of theatrical horror).

        I told my student this. Why? because a lot of them were scared they couldn’t measure up, couldn’t understand stuff like Bessel functions and torsional instability in steel I-beams.

        “If HE can understand it…I’m sure I can, too!”

        (And I owe two great men, Freider Seible and Nigel Priestley, everything I became in that career, because they saw enough to give me a shot when everyone else wanted to kick me out.)

    • To be more specific about “in my humble opinion” –

      It’s a catchphrase designed to allow one to say hurtful things while adopting the guise of humility.

  10. Whatever happened to the advice, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”? Sigh. I want to be teachable, but I agree with Andrew. So much of the criticism we see today is simply someone wanting to stomp around and have their fifteen minutes. Say nothing and keep a tin of tums on the desk.

  11. I do not look forward to negative reviews. It’s the one that are more like personal attacks than “reviews” that I dread. I haven’t faced much of the writerly sort of negative reviews (with the exception of one or two judge comments in contests that felt more attacking than instructive).

    I’m fortunate to have a few friends who have gone before me on this road, and I’m learning from them how to handle negative reviews. I’ve yet to see an author’s responding to a negative review go well. So your #1 makes perfect sense.

    I have heard of authors who are able to take the gems from a negative review and use the reviewer’s thoughts to improve their writing. I hope to be able to do this as well. Especially if more than one reviewer shares about a similar facet of my writing.

    And grace . . . grace is hard to offer, but it gives us peace when we do.

  12. Rachelle, wise points and another keeper post! Thank you!

    • John Wells says:

      A review is an opinion PERIOD! While they’re purported to be objective, few are. The reviewer has certain presuppositions that become the basis for the so-called review, and this makes them subjective rather than objective. For ease of understanding, let’s consider any review to encompass two aspects: technical and presentation. The technical part deals with the author’s premise based on factual evidence. Here a harsh review can be subjective because the reviewer comes with his own prejudice. As Stewart Barney (Fox Business News) says, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.” In other words, an atheist is not qualified to critique the Book of Exodus. When the Revised Standard Version of The Bible came out several years ago, I heard one lady declare, “I don’t like it! I like The Bible just like King James wrote it!” In the other aspect, Presentation reviews are opinions of our writing skills. These are also subjective, but they should compare the presentation to standards of grammar concerning sentence and paragraph development. Finally, there is a tendency for reviewers, even when objective in their analysis, to approach a review as “finding something to criticize, even if it’s picayune.” As I said before, it comes with the territory. Write and let the Devil take the hindmost.

  13. Julia Bartgis says:

    Thank you, Rachelle. I always enjoy reading your blogs but this one is particularly helpful.

  14. Thanks this is very very helpful. I have not have them openly yet but I dread them. I feel now I am better prepared.

  15. My writer friend, Hilarey Johnson told me “skin like a rhino, heart like a baby”. So wise!
    I have a collection of bad reviews, some of which are cutting and some constructive. I will quite happily learn if there’s something to glean from a bad review.
    Lots of authors say ‘just don’t read bad reviews’ but it’s like a train wreck sometimes, and you just can’t look away!

  16. Amy Buckley says:

    Criticism is tough. I remind myself of all the times the “hard pill” helped me grow. Meanness is worse. It helps me to remember that people are in different places (emotionally, intellectually, spiritually). Those who respond less than kindly often react out of hurt, anger, brokenness. I know it because of times I’ve reacted less than well and regretted it. I remind myself also that some personality types don’t connect with mine. Call me a geek, but studying the Meyers-Briggs has helped tremendously. I have noticed patterns of conflict with certain folks who rub my INFJ the wrong way. 🙂

  17. Elissa says:

    Unfair criticism and personal attacks can be very painful. I don’t think any feeling human being can suffer them without a scratch. But I always ask myself, “Who is this person to me? Is it someone I know and respect, and whose opinion actually matters?” If the answers are, “A complete stranger” and “No” it becomes much easier to ignore the stabs.

  18. Back in the ’80’s, someone, wrote 6-8 months worth of hatemail to a very large parachurch organization. Very, very serious threats were made, things were could have resulted in jail time.
    Like, think about it, JAIL TIME!!!

    Each letter was signed with my name.

    But this group decided to not contact me, or the police, and let things simmer in house until I was contronted about the events in front of 200-300 people.

    The thing was, I knew nothing about what was going on. Absolutely nothing. While my friend and I would spend time together doing fun stuff, she was busy mailing letters to a large organization, with my name on them, threatening to do all kinds of things to all kinds of people.

    And then I paid the price. I lost quite a few friends over the incident. No one wanted to have a thing to do with me, even though I had nothing to do with anything. A lawyer friend got my name cleared, worked things out with the organization and assured them to the point of them actually believing us, that this was all a set-up.

    I will never ever accuse anyone of anything unless I have proof, warrants and witnesses. I will never publically do battle with someone unless they fire the first shot, and even then, I’d be very careful about what I say and do.

    People got hurt because of my name, but I didn’t even know it. How much worse is it if I hurt someone I’ve never met, and do so intentionally?

  19. Peter DeHaan says:

    Although it is never fun to be criticized or attacked, at least that shows someone is reading our work – which is what all writers want.

  20. Have any of you ever felt threatened or uncomfortable in some way by those who follow your writing?

    • I have a reason for asking.

      • If you feel threatened, contact the local law enforcement authorities. Don’t wait, and don’t feel that it’s overkill.

        Things can get out of hand faster than you can ever imagine.

        Also – let people in your immediate circle know what’s happening; family and friends. Many eyes see more than two.

        If it’s a real and personal threat, vary your routine; don’t be predictable in your daily activities. Take different routes when you walk or drive, and avoid being alone in remote areas if possible.

        Be situationally aware. Some might call it paranoia, but paranoia has kept me alive more than once.

        Know what to expect in your surroundings, and make note of anything odd. Look for patterns; if you start seeing the same car, one that you have not seen before, it could be what we’d call a combat indicator.

        Screen your calls. Do NOT be drawn into a conversation with a potential assailant. Do record the time and phone number, and save any messages left.

        Finally, do NOT NOT NOT let anyone tell you you’ve over-reacting.

        YOU are the judge of what’s happening.

        My prayers are with you.

    • Norma, yes. I had a fan who became something of an email pest, but I severed contact, and blocked the address, and it did not develop further. If it had, I am well trained and equipped to deal with it.

      A more unpleasant episode happened when I was teaching – a student began showing up at my house, and acting REALLY weird. I had to take direct action, and he ended up in a psych hospital in his home town.

      If my counsel is worth anything – never get too personal, and never invite friendship until there is a proven track record of stability…and then, be cautious and watchful.

      • Thank you, Andrew. Your comments are helpful. I am aware of a potential threat. I’ve wondered what I should do if they should become active. It’s nice to have an opportunity to ask the question . I haven’t known where to articulate my concerns or what to do. That’s all I can say. Bless you.

  21. Sherry Kyle says:

    It is frustrating when the reader says they didn’t know it was a Christian book, but honestly I cherish those one-star reviews because I know I’ve introduced them to Christ. What makes me smile is that all of those readers have said they’ve finished reading the book. 🙂 Love it!

  22. Rachelle, great post. Thank you!

  23. Elaine Faber says:

    I’ve been asked to ‘Amazon review’ books as a favor to writer acquaintances. If, after reading the book and feeling it lacks in writing skill, plot, etc, I’m faced with how to proceed. I’d never give a one star to a book. If I thought it was that bad, I wouldn’t review it. In the above situation, I must write something as agreed. No matter how poorly written, every book has some redeeming quality. I may search long and hard, but once found…that’s what I write about. If carefully worded, you can be kind and even give constructive comment and give it a 3 or 4 star review.

  24. BL Whitney says:

    Wonderful insight and great reminders Rachelle. It’s hard to get hurtful feedback. I have a client (psychotherapy) who published a memoir and in our 3 sessions together, she has mentioned that review all 3 times, and can’t take in the many positive ones. I can relate, and it’s important to keep working with our responses so we don’t go into despair and give up!

  25. This has happened to me before, even before publishing. It happens at all stages. For me the worst example was unsolicited conversation at the family dinner table once about an unpublished manuscript. The relative disapproved of the topic of the book very vocally and it wasn’t even the topic of discussion at the table at the time time. The subject of the book that garnered so much wrath was an off the wall book about farts.

  26. This has happened to me before, even before publishing. It happens at all stages. For me the worst example was unsolicited conversation at the family dinner table once about an unpublished manuscript. The relative disapproved of the topic of the book very vocally and it wasn’t even the topic of discussion at the table at the time time. The subject of the book that garnered so much wrath was an off the wall book about farts.

  27. Calisa Rhose says:

    My first 1 star review started out so upbeat. What a great h/H, blah, blah, blah the first paragraph went on with the points the reader liked. The second paragraph went deeper into the reader’s dislikes, as expected. Ok, I can take criticism. It was the third paragraph that got my book the 1 star, however, and I didn’t even have control over her biggest issue.

    The reader thought the book too short at 176 pages for the price (2.99). The part that made me laugh? She was sure to point out that she didn’t even pay for the book sent to her FREE by my publisher! I couldn’t help myself. I had to leave a comment. Yes, I knew better, but I did anyway. I thanked her for taking the time to read and review the book! Nothing more, just a thank you. LOL I was raised to kill with kindness, so I did. She replied with some polite response and a ‘you’re welcome’. It’s the only negative review I’ve ever responded to and will likely be the last because-all people are not nice even when you are.

  28. Love those last two sentences. S true.